January 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

January 2011

Au Revoir to Mr. Olbermann

 

Keith Olbermann says good-bye on Friday night

Above the Fold

    Love him or loathe him, you have to give Keith Olbermann credit: he did more to re-balance the ideology of cable news than anyone else ever did.

    Olbermann’s success was entirely responsible for MSNBC’s decision to re-brand itself as the liberal alternative to Fox.   Before Olbermann landed there eight years ago, the network had never had any discernible identity, or consistent prime time success.

    Until Olbermann started drawing in new viewers at 8 PM, starting at a couple of hundred thousand, building to 726,000 by 2007, and toping out at more than a million, no cable network had discovered that a champion of progressive ideas could be nearly as profitable as a Bill O’Reilly or a Glenn Beck.

    In stark contract to those two serial prevaricators, Olbermann brought a keen intelligence and genuine intellectual honesty to his program.  Anyone who thinks that he and Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are “just the liberal version of Fox” either have never watched Roger Ailes’ network, or don’t know the difference between intelligent commentary and pure propaganda.

      No  one doubts that both Maddow and O’Donnell owe their current shows to Olbermann, not only because of his successful example, but also because they were his frequent guests and/or guest hosts.

      When O’Donnell assumed Olbermann’s slot this week–what he called “the most successful hour in MSNBC history”–he said, “I am here thanks entirely to Keith.” 

    That same night Rachel Maddow praised Olbermann for “clearing the space” for liberals to be liberals on television, by “not only voicing his own opinion but by being really freaking successful while he did it.  If you want to be a pioneer, don’t just be the first person like you to do something, be the first person like you to do it brilliantly. That’s how you change the world, so others like you get chances too.”

    To some Olbermann’s bombastic special comments made him look and sound too much like fictional anchorman Ted Baxter, but they were always full of unvarnished truths–especially when he described the right-wing’s attack on Shirley Sherrod:

        Let me make this utterly clear: What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites, is the utter and complete perversion of journalism, and it can have no place in a civilized society. It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame. It is a political guillotine. It is the manipulation of reality to make the racist seem benevolent, and to convict the benevolent as racist — even if her words must be edited, filleted, stripped of all context, rearranged, fabricated, and falsified, to do so.

        What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites… is a manipulation. Not just of a story, not just on behalf of a political philosophy. Manipulation of a society, its intentional redirection from reality and progress, to a paranoid delusion and the fomenting of hatred of Americans by Americans…The assassins of the Right have been enabled on the Left.

    As I wrote then,  “It has become fashionable to dismiss Keith Olbermann as an over-the-top ranter — or as the MSNBC host put it himself, ‘a mirror image of that which I assail.’  But there was nothing over-the-top about his special comment about Shirley Sherrod.  Every word he spoke was true.            

     “And the only thing that made his stance so remarkable is the abject failure of the mainstream media … to accurately describe the source of the allegation against  Sherrod, or to chronicle the long-term impact of the ‘complete perversion of journalism’ practiced 365 days a year by Fox News (and the right-wing bloggers and radio hosts that make up the rest of this wackosphere).”

    When Ted Koppel attacked Olbermann for his admittedly misguided contributions to three Democratic political candidates last year (including one to Gabrielle Giffords), Olbermann was equally accurate in his retort that the only times  the networks have made crucial contributions to the life of the republic have been when its anchors threw off their cloaks of objectivity–when Ed Murrow attacked Joe McCarthy, when Walter Cronkite devoted half of the CBS Evening News to Watergate, and–most importantly–when Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, and declared the war an unwinnable stalemate.

    Olbermann said, “the great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow and [others, including Koppel] did.  These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.”

    Asked by FCP to summarize Olbermann’s contributions, longtime media student Martha Ritter described them this way:

    He asked all the questions I wanted asked that no one else would. Piercing through the haze, maze, sorting out what the hell just happened today in a three dimensional way. WHY did this happen? Is it the state of the country? Is it a couple of nut jobs cooking something up? Now what can we expect? Why? Can we do something about it? (Yes, in some cases…i.e. help organize medical clinics, put your money where your mouth is…Here’s the phone number, etc.)

     It was like coming home to a brilliant, cranky family member who had nothing better to do all day than follow the flow of muck that shapes our lives, and run around talking to everyone about EVERYTHING to do with it. You get him at the end of the day when he holds what he’s gathered up to the light. You get his opinion PLUS valuable info, and on top of that…the cathartic honor of throwing up with him, marveling at ineptitude, absurdities, cracking up together, sometimes even witnessing other well-intentioned, smart, deft people who are helping the muck flow in the right direction.

    He took nothing at face value. He served up motivations and belief systems, often through interviews right before our eyes at a level of reporting you don’t exactly get in, say, The New York Times–or, for that matter, on a regular basis from Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow, who, although they share Olbermann’s point of view, dig less and pontificate more.

    He expressed the outrage of millions in a razor sharp, nuanced, outsized, often entertaining way. What I am really going to miss is the feeling that, “Yeah, sock it to em, Keith. I’m going to relax and get something to eat.”

    Last Friday  Olbermann’s multiple battles with his bosses–perhaps combined with an eagerness by them to please the incoming owners from Comcast–culminated in the sharp surprise  of Olbermann’s final MSNBC broadcast.

            If the rumors are true that the cost of the separation to MSNBC was to pay Olbermann another $14 million for the last two years of his contract, it’s not  hard to understand why Keith took the deal.   According to Bill Carter and Brian Stelter, Olbermann’s deal with MSNBC will only keep him off television for nine months–at the most.

    That means he can return to the tube well beefore the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest. 

    Given his proven capacity to make money with often riveting television, there will be no shortage of cable outlets eager to get  him back on the air.  

    And that is good news for America.

 

 

 

The Hour When The Ship Comes In

 

Joshua Lott / courtesy The New York Times

Above the Fold

     To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people–especially [people] who are unbalanced to begin with.

                   –Pima County, Arizona  Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, January 9, 2011

    It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.

                    –Paul Krugman, January 10, 2011

    This morning in Arizona, this age in which this country would accept  “targeting” of political opponents and putting bullseyes over their faces and of the dangerous blurring between political rallies and gun shows, ended.  This morning in Arizona, this time of the ever-escalating, borderline-ecstatic invocation of violence in fact or in fantasy in our political discourse, closed. It is essential tonight not to demand revenge, but to demand justice; to insist not upon payback against those politicians and commentators who have so irresponsibly brought us to this time of domestic terrorism, but to work to change the minds of them and their supporters - or if those minds tonight are too closed, or if those minds tonight are too unmoved, or if those minds tonight are too triumphant, to make sure by peaceful means that those politicians and commentators and supporters have no further place in our system of government.

                  –Keith Olbermann, January 9, 2011

    No one knows what history will make of the present — least of all journalists, who can at best write history’s sloppy first draft. But if I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn’t choose the kabuki health care summit that generated all the ink and 24/7 cable chatter in Washington. I’d put my money instead on the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18. It was a flare with the dark afterlife of an omen…All it takes is a few self-styled “patriots” to sow havoc.

                    --Frank Rich, February 27, 2010

    A hard rain’s gonna fall means something’s going to happen.

                    –Bob Dylan

    There was nothing really surprising about Saturday’s massacre in Arizona; that was the most horrifying thing about it.

    Events like this are completely predictable in a country where so many pundits and politicians are addicted to apocalyptic rhetoric, and all serious attempts to restrict the use of firearms have been abandoned.

    Where else but America could an obviously deranged college student be thrown out of school and forbidden to return without official certification of his mental health–and then proceed directly to a sporting goods store to purchase a 9 mm Glock pistol with a 30-bullet clip.  This kind of gun, according to Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke, “is not suited for hunting or personal protection.  What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.”

    As Gail Collins pointed out in a crucial column today, the only reason Jared L. Loughner was able to buy that semiautomatic weapon legally was “because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004, and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.”

    Today there is blood on the hands of all the legislators who failed to extend that law– and not just the blood of their colleague,  a federal judge,  four other dead and fourteen wounded innocents.   We can add to that the blood of tens of thousands murdered in the Mexican drug wars in the last four years–nearly all of them killed with assault weapons purchased legally on our side of the border, according to Mexican and American law enforcement officers.

  Arizona is  one of 12 “gold star” open carry states

    In a powerful  special comment on Saturday night, Keith Olbermann summarized the acts and the attitudes which contributed so much to this fatal climate–and which must now be repudiated:

    If  Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 Representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics - she must be repudiated by the members of her own party, and if they fail to do so, each one of them must be judged to have silently defended this tactic that today proved so awfully foretelling, and they must in turn be dismissed by the responsible members of their own party.

    If  Jesse Kelly, whose campaign against Congresswoman Giffords included an event in which he encouraged his supporters to join him firing machine guns, does not repudiate this, and does not admit that even if it was solely indirectly, or solely coincidentally, it contributed to the black cloud of violence that has envellopped our politics, he must be repudiated by Arizona’s Republican Party.

    If  Congressman Allen West, who during his successful campaign told his supporters that they should make his opponent afraid to come out of his home, does not repudiate those remarks and all other suggestions of violence and forced fear, he should be repudiated by his constituents and the Republican Congressional Caucus.

    If Sharron Angle, who spoke of “Second Amendment solutions,” does not repudiate that remark and urge her supporters to think anew of the terrible reality of what her words implied, she must be repudiated by her supporters in Nevada.

    If  the Tea Party leaders who took out of context a Jefferson quote about blood and tyranny and the tree of liberty do not understand - do not understand tonight, now what that really means, and these leaders do not tell their followers to abhor violence and all threat of violence, then those Tea Party leaders must be repudiated by the Republican Party.

    If  Glenn Beck, who obsesses nearly as strangely as Mr. Loughner did about gold and debt and who wistfully joked about killing Michael Moore, and Bill O’Reilly, who blithely repeated “Tiller the Killer” until the phrase was burned into the minds of his viewers, do not begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death-fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution, then those commentators and the others must be repudiated by their viewers, and by all politicians, and by sponsors, and by the networks that employ them.

    And if those of us considered to be “on the left” do not re-dedicate ourselves to our vigilance to eliminate all our own suggestions of violence - how ever inadvertent they might have been then we too deserve the repudiation of the more sober and peaceful of our politicians and our viewers and our networks.

    It has hardly helped matters that hate mongers like Roger Ailes and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are routinely treated so softly (or even warmly)  by pundits and reporters like David Carr and Brian Stelter and Bill Carter and David Gergen and James Poniewozik, and, worst of all,  David von Drehle, who wrote, obscenely,  in Time, that Beck is “tireless, funny, [and]self-deprecating…a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking.”

     And when incompetent repoters like NBC’s Mike Viqueira run clips of Sarah Palin saying that Barack Obama “wants to take all your guns away”–and then neglects to point out that this is a cold-blooded lie–they throw a different kind of fuel on the fire.  (The sad truth is,  the Obama admnistration has not done a single thing to try to encourage any kind of gun control in America.) 

    As Keith Olbermann said on Saturday, “we stand at one of the clichéd crossroads of American history. Even if the alleged terrorist Jared Lee Loughner was merely shooting into a political crowd because he wanted to shoot into a political crowd, even if he somehow was unaware who was in the crowd, we have nevertheless  for years been building up to a moment like this.  Assume the details are coincidence. The violence is not. The rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.”

    Yesterday, Matt Bai wrote in the Times,  “Tucson will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come.”

    If this is going to be the event that leads us away from the abyss, instead of plunging us to the bottom of it,  new and different kinds of courage and intelligence will be required from all of us.
 

                                                                         -30-